November 3, 2021

IAS Names Scholar David Nirenberg As New Director, Succeeding Dijkgraaf

By Anne Levin

David Nirenberg

The Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) has appointed David Nirenberg as its 10th director and Leon Levy Professor, effective July 1, 2022. The IAS Board of Trustees voted unanimously in favor of the appointment on October 30.

Nirenberg, who is currently dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago and professor of medieval history, earned a master’s degree and doctorate from Princeton University’s Department of History. He succeeds Robbert Dijkgraaf, who has served as IAS director since July 1, 2012. Nirenberg’s term is for five years, and can be renewed for another five.

“I couldn’t think of a better choice to hand over the baton. I have come to know David as an eminent scholar, creative thinker, and thoughtful academic leader with an impressive track record of success,” said Dijkgraaf, in a press release. “He has a deep connection to the core values of IAS of joining together excellence, diverse perspectives, and the limitless possibilities of the shared pursuit of knowledge. This appointment will add many new dimensions to the intellectual life at the Institute that I hope to enjoy personally for many years to come. It is thanks to the tremendous effort of trustees and faculty that we can look forward to welcoming David as our next director.”

Nirenberg was founding director of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. In that position, “He championed a program that afforded both funding and space to catalyze collaborations across every division, school, and affiliated laboratory at the university,” according to the release. “By uniting practitioners across fields, the collegium enables novel investigations and new forms of thinking based on the cross-pollination of ideas.”

At the University of Chicago, Nirenberg has served as dean of the social sciences and executive vice provost. He is the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Distinguished Service Professor of Social Thought, History, Divinity, Romance Languages, and Literatures.

“The appointment of a humanities scholar is a bold choice, which departs from several decades of directors trained in science and mathematics, but reaffirms in the strongest sense the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration at IAS,” said Charles Simonyi, the Institute’s board chair. “An energetic and astute leader, David understands that the Institute is a public good in service of society: to be a haven for scholars with a long view ready to share the fruits of their curiosity.”

While dean of the Division of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, Nirenberg led efforts to create the Computational Social Science program and to establish the Center for International Social Science Research and the Committee on Quantitative Social Science. These endeavors shared the goal of accelerating the diffusion of new methodologies across disciplinary boundaries and expanding possibilities for discovery.

Nirenberg was born to immigrant parents from Argentina who eventually settled in Albany, N.Y. He graduated with an A.B. from Yale University in 1986 before earning his M.A. in 1989 and Ph.D. in 1992 from Princeton. Nirenberg was a visiting scholar in the IAS School of Historical Studies in 1996 and 1997.

“I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in upstate New York, sparking my lifelong attraction to conversations across languages and cultures,” he said. “As a Visitor at the Institute in 1996, I remember feeling as if I had suddenly found home. My experience was typical: the Institute’s polyglot conversations change every scholar who enters them, creating new connections and enabling discovery. Are there ways to give the global scholarly community more access to that transformative power? Can we extend those conversations to new publics? Those are questions that the Institute has been and will be thinking a great deal about.”

Nirenberg is the author of numerous books and articles on Christians, Jews, and Muslims of medieval Europe and the Mediterranean. His books include Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle AgesAnti-Judaism: The Western Tradition; and Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, Medieval and Modern. With his father, mathematician Ricardo Nirenberg, he jointly authored Uncountable: A Philosophical History of Number and Humanity from Antiquity to the Present. 

“David is obviously a world-renowned historian, whose incredible range of expertise includes religions in medieval Europe, the history of race, and most recently the history of math and physics,” said Myles Jackson, professor in the School of Historical Studies. “His expansive breadth of knowledge of numerous fields and topics, many of which are directly relevant to the IAS, greatly impressed all of us on the committee. His erudition and his extensive administrative experience make him the perfect scholar to be the Institute’s next director.”

Nirenberg has held academic positions at institutions including Rice University (1992–2000); Johns Hopkins University (2000–06), where he founded the Stulman Center for Jewish Studies (in 2001–02); and the University of Chicago (2006–present). As a faculty member, center director, executive vice provost, and dean, Nirenberg played a leading role in successful solicitation of approximately $275 million.

“Since the Institute’s creation in 1930, discoveries by its faculty have transformed fields from mathematics and physics to anthropology and art history,” said Nirenberg. “The Institute has also served the nation and the world through the constant performance of its founding values: that discriminations by gender and race are inimical to excellence, that scholars and ideas must move freely if fundamental knowledge is to flourish, and that when knowledge flourishes, humanity benefits. Both these tasks — discovery and the defense of these values — feel as urgent today as they were at the founding of this marvelous institution that I am so proud to be joining.”